Bayou City Body Snatchers

How cold war fears fueled a hot market for Houston's human parts business.

Much later, Strughold was publicly implicated in several horrific experiments in the Nazis' Dachau death camp. Before the war, he researched the effects of high altitudes and ocean crashes on German air force pilots. After the Nazis opened Dachau, prisoners were locked into chambers and asphyxiated as the air was sucked out. Gypsies were given nothing to drink for weeks except salt water. Jews were plunged into icy water, then studied as they froze to death.

Once in the United States, Strughold headed SAM's research into health issues affecting this country's air force pilots. One topic of interest was the effect of radiation on pilots' flying abilities. For answers, SAM funded research with M.D. Anderson in Houston. There, radiologist Gilbert Fletcher designed a study in which 263 terminal cancer patients were exposed to as much as 200 roentgens of radiation. This was about 2,000 times more radiation than was considered safe, at the time, for a person to receive in one exposure. In that period, it was more than had ever been used for TBI -- total body irradiation -- cancer treatment. A radiologist who later reviewed the study likened the dose to that received by people at ground zero in Hiroshima.

After the radiation, patients did mechanical and mental exercises, such as moving a stick and a rudder bar to match the position of red and green lights -- a task related to piloting. Their body fluids were measured to search for a dosimeter, a biological marker that would show how much radiation they got.

David Terrill

Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.
Jachimczyk says that before the medical examiner system, Harris County "was delighted" to get rid of unclaimed bodies.

After the exposure, one young test subject with testicular cancer vomited so much that he had to be carried by stretcher and required a liter of IV saline solution. Of patients who received the maximum radiation, more than a fifth died within two months; none survived more than 20 months. M.D. Anderson tended to have needy patients in the 1950s, and records indicate that many test subjects were African-Americans, or Hispanics who did not understand English well. They received no consent forms to sign; those weren't standard in medical research until the 1970s. Researchers described "an elderly and emaciated Negro male" who died 43 days after exposure -- faster than most people with his type of cancer. Scientists surmised that the radiation "hastened the patient's demise."

Today, Jim Cox, the head of M.D. Anderson's radiation oncology division, defends the study. He says it was almost certainly done for treatment purposes, and not just to help the air force. "Back then," Cox says, "radiologists either held the hand of patients" with terminal cancer "or they became therapeutic interventionists who tried to do something." Gilbert Fletcher was the latter type: "He was a very creative radiation oncologist constantly looking for new treatments for cancer."

M.D. Anderson's contract is not available, so it is impossible to know whether it was the cancer center or the air force that originated the idea of radiating patients. Cox thinks the military piggybacked onto an already planned Fletcher project. "Fletcher's studies were therapeutic," Cox insists. "He was trying to treat his patients' cancer."

But Cox's theory is contradicted by Fletcher's résumé, which is archived at Baylor and is as thick as a magazine. The résumé stretches for pages, listing scores of articles Fletcher published about his cancer research. But there is no mention of any follow-up study about what happened to the people irradiated under military contract. Fletcher and his colleagues published data about what happened to these patients right after the experiment; for instance, how much they vomited and how far their white blood cell counts dropped. But no articles are listed about how the radiation affected them in the following months or years.

Nor did the study have a control group -- a sample of cancer patients who did not receive total body irradiation -- even though such groups are required in studies of experimental treatments. Even without a control group, though, the study concluded that there was "no evidence to suggest that whole-body irradiation has influenced survival in any way." Nor was there evidence of change in the progress of the patients' cancers.

Perhaps the most ominous aspect of the M.D. Anderson study was the presence of co-researcher Herbert Gerstner. His boss, Hubertus Strughold, sent him to Houston from the Air Force School of Aviation Medicine to help with the cancer patient study. Gerstner was another Operation Paperclip doctor, smuggled out of Germany in 1949, even though officials knew that he had been a member of Hitler Youth in the 1930s. As journalist and Operation Paperclip researcher Linda Hunt revealed in a Texas Observer article, Gerstner was a Nazi Party member. He also may have participated in atrocities. In Nazi Germany, Gerstner's research specialty was the effects of electricity on human skin. He worked closely with a doctor who regularly dissected brains removed from people killed in German euthanasia centers. Given his ties with torturers and murderers, some of Gerstner's research is highly suspect, for example, a study in which a man's left hand was exposed to extreme heat while his right hand received an electric shock. Was the man a volunteer or a death-camp inmate? Gerstner told the U.S. government that his electricity-and-skin records had been destroyed during the war.

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